The Chaouis of Algeria

Located primarily in the region of the Aurès Mountains in eastern Algeria, the Chaoui are an indigenous group of Berber people whose name is derived from the Berber word referring to the national god of the Numidians – the Berber tribes who lived in the historical region of Numidia, an area encompassing a large part of north-eastern Algeria and into modern-day Tunisia between 202 BC and 46 BC. The name Chaoui is taken from the Berber word ‘Ich’, meaning ‘horn’ and is a reference to the Numidian god Amon, who is portrayed at having a human head with the horns of a ram.

The Chaoui were reportedly also known as the Zenata, and according to 14th century historian, Ibn Khaldum, members of this tribe travelled throughout North Africa and settled in areas that include modern-day Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria. Ibn Khaldum documented his belief that they are connected to the medieval Berbers, along with the Senhaja and Masmuda of the Middle Maghreb, with their common ancestor being the patriarch Medghassen. This has been disputed by some modern historians, who rank the Chaouis as part of the Gaetuli from the desert region south of the Atlas, or with the Maesulians of eastern Numidia.

In modern-day Algeria, following the country’s independence, the Chaouis have remained mainly in the region of the Aurès Mountains – an extension of the Atlas mountain range. They are found in Khenchela, Batna, Sétif, Souk Ahras, Tébessa, Oum El Bouaghi and in the northern part of Biskra. They speak the Chaouïa language, also referred to as Shawiya, Shawia Tachawit and Tachaouith. With more than two million speakers, they are the second biggest Berber-language speaking group in Algeria, with the largest group being the Kabyle. As an ancient language which doesn’t have words to describe some modern concepts, Chaouïa speakers often use French, Arabic or English where no Chaouïa word exists. Until recently, the Chaouïa language was not a written language and was not part of the education system in Algeria. This has reportedly started to change as people want to preserve their heritage, including keeping the original form of the Chaouïa language pure.